If you seek to be a high-achiever, you have to make good habits, lots of them and you have to abandon the bad ones. Just to summon a couple of quotes from the giants:

We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. (Will Durant and not Aristotle )

And two of my favorites:

We first make our habits, and then our habits make us. (John Dryden)

We are mere bundles of habits, imitators and copiers of our past selves. (William James)

Importance, and the vital role of habits, in fact, is evident to us like many other sound advice.

We know but be fail to act. Or if we act, soon we would relapse. The question is: How to create a good habit that sticks.

In this post you will learn:

  1. How habits are formed: The three core elements of habits
  2. How you can actually create an effective habit loop
  3. What Makes Habit Creation Hard and How to Make it Easy Using Catalysts.

The habit loop and its three core elements.

Each habit is comprised of three core elements:

  1. Trigger (or Cue)
  2. Routine (or habit as we know it)
  3. Reward

1. The Trigger (Cue)

The first element of each habit is a trigger or cue. A trigger is essentially what prompts us or reminds us to take a specific action. For example, in the habit of smoking, a sensation of anxiety or the sight of a cigarette pack prompts us to indulge in the routine of smoking.

Triggers come in two major forms:

  • a. Objects: Visual objects or auditory sounds can serve as cues or triggers that spark the idea of action. It has probably has happened to you as well: the sight of your book encouraging you to take and read it, or, the sound of a notification on your phone, drifting you away from the task at hand and drowning you in Facebook app.
  • b. Sensations: Feelings and sensations e.g. anger, anxiety, happiness, etc., also serve as strong triggers. A compelling trigger for alcoholics is often the sensation of anxiety. Or the sensation of a low mood might prompt us to grab the TV control and start watching …

So, triggers, are the first element of a habit loop, that drive us towards taking a specific action.

2. Routine (Habit)

 When the trigger nudges us, we engage in a specific routine. This is the habit itself. Anxiety kicks in (trigger), then smoking or drinking alcohol follows (routine or the habit).

3. Reward 

When the routine is finished, we are often left with a reward. This reward is essentially what enforces the whole process to be imprinted in our brain and establishes the whole cycle of trigger > routine > reward AND REPEAT.

This reward can come in many forms: A feeling of relaxation, food, joy, etc.

What happens at this stage is crucial. Following the trigger, routine, reward, a loop starts forming in your brain.

With several iterations of this loop, you will reach a point where you will experience cravings.

When the habit has been repeated enough (it can range from a couple of weeks to over 200 times of repetition), with the very first hint of the trigger, you will feel butterflies in your belly which compels you forcefully to engage with the routine. Yes, as you may have noticed, this is very similar to what we call addiction.

There is a thrilling news here, though. Now that we know what elements are involved in a habit, we can deliberately design one which would end up serving us. Here’s what I’ve covered so far:a

habit loop
Fig 1. Habit Loop

How to Build Habits Swiftly and Effectively

Remember that our goal is to build a habit with the level of automaticity. Put differently, we want to build a habit that does not rely on our willpower and that we want to make it as automatic as possible.

Otherwise, after several attempts, the whole process will end up in oblivion like many of our new year’s resolution.

1. Choose the habit: The first step is to choose what habit you want to form, to begin with. Reading books? Meditation? Jogging? Up to you.

2. Establish a Trigger: Second step is to pick a trigger that reminds you of what you want to do. For example, if you want to adopt the habit of reading, you can choose to set the books you want besides your bed on the table.

Or if you want to adopt the habit of jogging, as a trigger, you can put your workout gears somewhere that keeps catching your attention.

Here are characteristics of an effective trigger:

  • Pick a trigger that happens every day and is not subjected to circumstances.
  • Pick a trigger that you cannot avoid. For instance, you can choose to eat as a trigger for your reading habit. This way, each time want to eat, you are triggered to engage with your reading habit. Other ideas could include taking shower, brushing your teeth and many many others.
  • The trigger must enable you to follow through your habit immediately. This is crucial in that if there is too much time between the trigger and the action, your brain fails to associate these two events together, hence, you may be exposed to the trigger, but it really does not prompt you to action.
  • Make one and only one trigger for the habit you have in mind.

3. Design the routine: After the trigger, you have to design your desired routine or the habit. Why do I say design?

The reason is that there are many pitfalls that if you are not aware of them, we will not reach the level of automaticity we want. In other words, the whole process will vanish after several attempts.

Depending on the type of habit, you will definitely feel some level of resistance. You want to start reading or go jogging, and you have set up the trigger. But … you may not feel like it.

There are many reasons behind this resistance such as willpower. (I will talk about these reason in a later post).

There are, however, strategies you can adopt, that can reduce the feeling of resistance. I call these tricks: catalyst.

Making Habits Faster With Catalysts

The first catalyst is to shrink the habit in the beginning. If you want to establish the habit of reading, do not set your goal to read an hour a day. This might cause your brain to panic in which case your brain creates a strong feeling of resistance that prevents you from taking action.

The crucial thing here is just to keep the habit loop going. No matter how small you engage with your habit. Shrink the duration or intensity to make it far easier to your brain.

The second catalyst is to use the mighty technique of Veto power. This is an effective technique about which you can read here. The idea here is that there is a small window in which you can act, otherwise, your mind will talk you out of it.

The third catalyst is a technique called 20-seconds rule. This rule states that from the time that the trigger goes off, it should take less than 20 seconds till you engage with your habit. This rule keeps the resistance low.

In the case of a reading book, imagine each time the trigger goes off, you need to go to your room, fetch it from the top shelve … This in itself, creates an extra layer of resistance which we want to minimize.

The strongest catalyst perhaps is a specific mindset that I have used to successfully cultivate many of my habits. I stumbled on the neuroscience of habits in the book: “I am okay, you are okay”. The conclusion of the passage which wrapped up the explanation read like this:

If you do the habit now, next time it would be slightly easier.

Remembering this phrase works like magic. Knowing the fact that this constructive act of yours, will be easier the next time you want to do it, literally destroys the resistance.

4. Reward: Now it is time for the last element of habit loop, the reward. It is critically important that the reward comes immediately, or with very short delay, after the habit.

In the case of working out or jogging, if you say to yourself I will be more fit in three months, it would be too far away, hence, constitutes a bad reward. Because your brain fails to associate that reward with the habit.

But if you reward yourself quickly with something like a meal you like, your brain learns to associate the reward with the routine.

The amazing thing that happens after a couple of weeks, is that as soon as the trigger goes off, not only you do not feel resistance, but also you would feel cravings.

This is the power of a well crafted and well-executed habit loop. Craving to do the right thing instead of feeling it like a burden.

Here are characteristics of a good reward:

  • It should come immediately after the routine.
  • It is vitally important for the reward to be pleasurable.
  • The best kinds of rewards are those that address our primal needs: Food, Sex, Socializing, Play, Relaxation.

I hope this article to help you forge effective habit loops. Remember that we are mere bundles up habits. The more sophisticated these habits of ours, the higher we can go on the ladder of achievement..

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